SUMMERVILLE, S.C. – Fred Gutierrez is hot – literally and figuratively. The temperature here is higher than forecast, and he has bladed his approach over the first green. Instead of a birdie putt, he has a blind uphill pitch.
He grabs his wedge with his right hand, brushes the clubhead back and forth against the grass in what he calls his tick-tock-tempo ritual, then takes a long, fluid swing. The ball pops up and lands softly on the green, releasing straight toward the pin. It rims the right side of the cup and stops a few inches away. Routine par.
Not bad for someone who has the use of only one arm and one leg. Someone who never expected to be able to play golf, to walk a course, even to still be alive.
MAY 18, 1996. Alfredo “Fred" Gutierrez is sitting on the couch in his double-wide mobile home in San Diego, and despair is overcoming him again. It's been a frequent companion since his childhood in New Mexico, which he says included an alcoholic father, a bipolar mother, sexual abuse from a cousin and long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder of his own. He thought becoming a born-again Christian would solve his problems, and it helped for a while, but it didn't stop him from feeling he was unworthy of being saved.
Being unemployed is weighing heavily on him. He's always been a conscientious, productive worker, holding a series of jobs after getting out of the Navy in 1978. He enjoyed the latest one – long-haul trucker – but an accident destroyed the 18-wheeler and left him without a source of income. He has a family to feed, plus alimony and child support to pay to his ex-wife.
The pressure is becoming unbearable. He can't stop an endless loop of painful memories – everything he has ever felt guilty about, no matter how trivial. He begins to sob. He feels like he has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, like in the cartoons. Only there's nothing funny about this feeling. The devil is easily winning the battle for his soul. “You’ve got guns," it taunts him. "You can end all of this suffering and misery. It will be over in two seconds. And no one will miss you.”
Gutierrez gets up and fetches the key to the handcuffs that lock his two guns in place in the laundry room. He passes over the Smith & Wesson .357 – its hollow-point bullets would splatter his brains all over the wall. Too messy. Without any hesitation he unlocks the Ruger .38 Special, raises it to his head and fires.
The next few moments are filled with confusion. Gutierrez is lying on the floor, one leg hanging out his back door. The concussion of the shot has blown out his neighbors’ windows, and someone has called 911.
Gutierrez expected to be in the afterlife by now, his suffering ended, but there is nothing heavenly about the host of voices around him. It’s police and EMTs. He can make out the word “coroner.” He feels a plastic tube being forced down his windpipe and a towel being duct-taped to his skull. The tube is for oxygen to try to keep his brain alive. The towel is to keep it from spilling out of his head. His body fights the insertion of the tube, and the EMTs incapacitate him with drugs.
A TRAUMA TEAM is waiting when the medical helicopter lands at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Gutierrez is given a transfusion to replace the nearly two liters of blood he has lost – enough to fill a large soda bottle. IVs are attached to his arms. X-rays and a CT scan are taken. Once his blood pressure – initially a low 88/55 – has risen sufficiently, he is wheeled into the operating room.
A neurosurgeon, Dr. Jean Wickersham, removes bullet and bone fragments and patches the two wounds in Gutierrez’s skull – entry in his right temple, exit in the top of his head. Gutierrez is then transferred to the Surgical Intensive Care Unit and listed in critical condition.
Wickersham dictates her report for transcription. “The next few days will be crucial with regard to the patient’s outcome, but at best I do not suspect him to be able to move his left side. This is going to require rehabilitation if he survives the injury.”
Five days later, Gutierrez is transferred to a Kaiser Permanente hospital in San Diego. He is to be admitted for further observation and prepared for physical, occupational and speech therapy.
He has survived.
"IF FRED can do it …”
If I heard that phrase once on my trip to South Carolina, I heard it a dozen times. I wasn’t surprised – it was the reason I had come to the Charleston area to meet Gutierrez, 59, and play golf with him. More to the point, I was going to walk 18 holes with him. I hadn’t walked an 18-hole course since January 2009, shortly before I was diagnosed with MS – multiple sclerosis. I had accepted that I was incapable of walking the 4-5 miles of a typical golf course, but when I heard Gutierrez’s story, the same thought occurred to me that has occurred to so many others whose lives he has touched:
“If Fred can do it …”
GUTIERREZ IS UNCONSCIOUS, but he is undergoing the most profound experience of his life. He is with Jesus Christ, who takes his hand and leads him through two tunnels, one dark, the other light. The first one is hell. The way Gutierrez describes it later, it is as dark and disturbing as Dante’s Inferno. Gutierrez is terrified – until Jesus tells him, “Don’t worry, I have your back.”
The other tunnel is bright, warm and comforting. Gutierrez wants to remain there, but instead is led to a third tunnel. Here he sees Satan, but the devil has Gutierrez's face. “As long as I live, I’ll never forget that evil face staring back at me,” he says. “I can’t put it into words.” Gutierrez is confronted with all the sins of his life, as if he is on trial. He begs Christ to save him, and immediately his agony vanishes. He wants to return to the bright tunnel and remain there, but he is sent back to Earth with words to guide him: “You cannot move forward until you stop looking back.”
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED to Fred Gutierrez? How does someone fire a bullet into their brain and live?
“I’ve seen many cases of unsuccessful suicide,” says Dr. Ara Suppiah of Florida Hospital in Orlando, who has worked in emergency rooms all over the world. “I can recall in 20 years of practice at least seven cases where (the suicide attempt) has been unsuccessful and the patient survived."
There are two ways to die from a gunshot to the brain, Suppiah says. "Either you have so much swelling and bleeding from the brain that the brain collapses, and you die from that. Or you shoot the part of the brain that controls your breathing, your blood pressure – the vital signs.”
What about the trajectory of a bullet going into the side of someone’s head, yet coming out the top?
When you pull the trigger, Suppiah says, "either you freak out and the head moves, or you freak out and the hand moves.” Either way, the barrel of the gun is tipped slightly upward and the bullet travels diagonally through the brain.
Gutierrez insists he felt the bullet being deflected inside his head by the hand of God. He knows many will think he's delusional. He doesn’t care. His belief will not be shaken.
As for his near-death experience, his description of it is similar to many others. According to the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, 774 near-death experiences occur daily in the United States. Most of the information about them is anecdotal. Skeptics believe they are hallucinations. Gutierrez understands that. He says his experience was real.
“I’ve had people tell me there’s no such thing as heaven and hell,” he says. “Well, then you’re telling me that there is no God. If there’s no God, why am I still here?”
The answer to that question can be physical – the combination of a fast-acting trauma team and a bullet that missed the crucial part of the brain – or metaphysical – divine intervention. But there’s another question with only one answer: Did Fred Gutierrez live or die? He lived. He IS here.
AS I SIT with Gutierrez and his friend Rich O’Brien in their regular booth in the grill room at Miler Country Club, not a person comes in who doesn’t greet Fred enthusiastically. “Hey, Fred, how ya doing?” “How’s it going, Fred?” “Play today, Fred?”
“He plays better with one hand than I play with two,” says Stanley Kranz, a member of a group of seniors with whom Gutierrez often plays. Yet that’s not why Gutierrez is so popular. Another senior, Tim Martin, puts it simply: “Everybody has accepted Fred as Fred.”
Gutierrez didn’t expect this reaction when he began playing at Miler. “I was scared,” he admits. He was self-conscious about his physical limitations and didn’t think he was good enough to play with the seniors’ group.
“You were kind of in a shell,” Bo Blanton tells him. Blanton is the course superintendent and a member of the family that owns the club. “You were afraid you didn’t fit in. Yet there were seniors who were just itching to play with you.”
WHAT IS LEFT of Gutierrez after his suicide attempt faces a long, difficult road of physical rehabilitation. He must learn how to function as a one-armed, one-legged person. Showering, going to the bathroom, putting on and taking off clothes – daily tasks he has always taken for granted – are now maddeningly difficult.
He’s determined not to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, and that determination sparks into anger when he overhears a therapist telling a family member that he will never walk again. He is sick of people telling him what he can’t do. His “pity party” is over. It’s time to get to work.
Gripping a parallel bar with his right hand, he uses momentum to swing his paralyzed left leg forward. But when he tries to push off of that leg, it buckles and he falls. Over and over again. He is fitted for an AFO – ankle and foot orthotic, a sort of plastic brace for his foot and lower leg – and it stabilizes his leg enough that he can stand and haltingly walk on it. The first place he walks to is the office of the therapist who doubted him.
THE WOMAN Gutierrez calls “Mom” is actually his aunt – his mother’s sister – but she’s been more like a mother to him than his biological mother ever was. The happiest years of his childhood were spent living with Santana Leonti and her husband in South Carolina from age 9 to 16.
When Gutierrez is released from the rehab hospital in September 1996, new troubles are lying in wait for him. His outpatient rehab now focuses on his mental acuity, and his physical condition deteriorates. He begins to experience severe pain. Added to all this is the crumbling of his second marriage.
The woman Gutierrez considers his mother - Santana Leonti. (Al Tays)
Leonti has seen enough. She buys him a plane ticket to South Carolina. It’s time for him to come “home” again so she can help him recover.
At first he just wants to sit around the house, but she won’t let him. Every afternoon when she comes home from work, she takes him on a five-mile walk. His strength and endurance grow. He finds a job, saves his money and buys a used car. He joins the Summerbrook Community Church and does volunteer work. He serves meals at a homeless shelter and joins the church’s prison ministry team. While working at the Charleston Air Force base, he meets a woman who shares his Christian beliefs. Now divorced from his second wife, he marries Jan.
He also meets a man who appears as beaten down by life as he ever was.
GUTIERREZ’S FIRST IMPRESSION of Rich O’Brien comes through his nose. The smell of morphine wafting from the man is overpowering. Ironically, O’Brien can’t smell it at all – he has lost his sense of smell. In addition, O’Brien’s right arm is in a sling, he’s in obvious pain and can barely walk.
To look at him, it’s nearly impossible to believe that O’Brien is a golfer. A former college player who didn’t quite have the skills to become a tour player, he stayed in the game, first as a college coach, later as a head pro, later as a marketing executive and finally as a partner in a golf marketing start-up. When the start-up failed, he was left broke and out of work, and took a job as a caddie at the Kiawah Island Club.
Rich O'Brien with Gutierrez. (Chris Dailey/Charleston Golf News)
On Sept. 25, 2008, standing on the back of a golf cart that is being driven back to the clubhouse, O’Brien is ejected when the cart makes a sharp turn at the bottom of a hill. His head hits the paved cart path, hard. He is airlifted to the Medical University of South Carolina Trauma Center. He has four skull fractures and a total of four spinal fractures - two neck and two back.
No one expects him to live, but, like Gutierrez, he does. Also like Gutierrez, he has a near-death experience, only his “guide” appears to be a doctor, who tells him “You will be OK. It will take a year, but you will be OK.” Immediately after hearing this, O’Brien realizes he can suddenly move his fingers and toes.
O’Brien is soon transferred to a rehab hospital, where his story continues to unfold like Gutierrez’s. He recovers quickly and determines that there is a heavenly force at work. The “doctor” he saw, he now believes, was an angel. He awakes one morning with a strong desire to find a church and express his gratitude for this miracle that has saved him. Even with his improved condition, the half-mile walk to the Summerbrook Community Church is extremely taxing, and when he staggers in the door, he looks like, well, not like heaven. He is offered coffee by a man whose presence seems to radiate inner peace.
Rich O’Brien, meet Fred Gutierrez.
AS WE PULL into the parking lot of the Summerbrook Community Church, O’Brien points to a building beside it and says, “That’s where I met Fred.” The building we’re about to enter replaced the other one as the church’s home in 2012.
We’re met by the church’s pastor, Brian Burton. O’Brien introduced him to golf and Burton became hooked, playing a couple of rounds a week, always walking. Gutierrez, who had gained a lot of weight since getting out of the hospital, noticed that Burton had slimmed down. Gutierrez started to think he could do the same.
Burton tells us he hasn’t played in a while because he’s been busy with church activities. “I haven’t been hunting much, either,” he allows. Mostly we talk about Gutierrez. We talk about how another church member, Paul Ballow, built him a set of clubs. They’re designed for a one-handed swinger, with extra-light shafts and heavy clubheads to promote a smooth, pendulum-like swing.
GUTIERREZ’S INITIAL golf experiences only discourage him. His first time out, a club employee has to bring him back to the clubhouse in the middle of his round. A siren had gone off, but Gutierrez didn’t realize it was a lightning warning. The employee jokingly calls him a dumbass, but Gutierrez doesn’t laugh.
His second time out, Gutierrez takes a wrong turn off of one hole and gets lost. The same club employee shows up. Makes the same “dumbass” remark. Feeling humiliated, Gutierrez puts his clubs in the closet.
O’Brien invites Gutierrez to be his partner in Miler CC’s member-guest tournament. During a practice round, Gutierrez stands frozen over every shot, myriad swing thoughts racing through his mind. O’Brien tells him to pick one and leave it at that. “OK,” Gutierrez responds. “For the glory of God.”
O’Brien smiles. He suggests Gutierrez turn that into a mental picture of a proper finish by altering it to “Hands high for the glory of God.” The perfect combination of form and faith.
SAY “BOTOX” and most of us think of celebrities with wrinkle-free skin and puffed-up lips. But botulinum toxin, deadly in all but the smallest quantities, was originally studied as a possible biological weapon. In 1989 the FDA approved it for the treatment of crossed eyes and eyelid muscle spasms. In 1992 a Canadian ophthalmologist noticed an odd side effect in her patients who were taking the drug for eyelid spasms – they were losing their frown lines. She published a study, and the rest is Hollywood history.
Gutierrez was introduced to the drug in September 2012 by accident or divine intervention, take your pick. He chooses the latter. A voice in a dream told him to turn on his TV in the middle of one night. There he saw a program about a paraplegic woman whose chronic pain was relieved by Botox. Gutierrez was experiencing pain from spasticity – a spasming of and tightness in one’s muscles because of an injury to the brain or spinal cord. When Gutierrez started to receive injections from Dr. Gonzalo Revuelta, a movement-disorder neurologist affiliated with the Medical University of South Carolina and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, the results were life-altering. The muscles in Gutierrez’s left arm and leg relaxed and stopped spasming. He slept better than he had in 16 years. And his overall pain, while it didn’t disappear, was reduced by at least half.
“His treatment is pretty standard,” Revuelta says. “What’s really remarkable about him is how far he’s taken it. You can do all the injections and medicines and therapy you want, but if that patient doesn’t have that resolve to take it to that next step, then it’s really not going to go anywhere. Fred has been remarkable in that regard.
“He comes in, he wears a bunch of braces and he doesn’t even let me help him take those off or put them on. He really wants to do everything on his own.”
THE FINAL PIECE of Gutierrez’s body-repair puzzle is found at Summerville Community Acupuncture, located in a storefront in the historic downtown, where banners proclaim Summerville as the birthplace of sweet tea. Proprietor Mary Margaret Dobson shepherds Gutierrez, O’Brien and myself into a back room, where reclining chairs, soothing music and pastoral paintings await. Not to mention a whole bunch of needles.
Acupuncture had helped O’Brien with sleep, pain and fatigue, and he suggested the treatment to Gutierrez.
Dobson performing scalp acupuncture on Gutierrez. (Al Tays)
As Dobson begins to insert needles into Gutierrez’s scalp, she explains how it works. “When more became known about the areas of the brain and what they do,” she says, “it was thought that stimulating the scalp over that area of the brain would get improvement in whatever you were trying to do.”
Dobson inserts needles in other parts of Gutierrez’s body as well. When she places one in his left thumb, he notes that he can feel it. This is his paralyzed side, remember.
“This is a wonderful sensation,” he says, lying back in the recliner, his eyes closed. Dobson laughs. “Nobody else says that.”
It was after an early scalp acupuncture treatment that Gutierrez first was able to move his paralyzed arm and leg.
“After 17 years of not being able to move those muscles and feel those sensations,” Gutierrez says, “that’s an awesome, awesome feeling.”
JANUARY 2013. Gutierrez and O’Brien want to organize a golf marathon to raise money for charity. Gutierrez will be the star attraction, walking a personal-best 36 holes. On the appointed day, the heavens open and the marathon has to be postponed. Three days later Gutierrez plays a practice round and shoots 89 – the first time he’s ever broken 90.
On March 5, the marathon finally gets underway. Gutierrez does a local TV interview before teeing off, and clearly he is nervous. He doesn’t like being in the spotlight. The first few holes don’t go so well, but once he hits his first good shot, others follow. When he taps in for birdie on his final hole, his score is 85, another personal best. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that he has walked 18 holes in 3 ½ hours.
The second round sees Gutierrez tiring. He’s not scoring like did the first 18, but that’s no longer important. The morning round was for scoring. This one is for finishing.
The crowd swells as Gutierrez nears the finish. When he hits his final approach shot and starts walking toward the green, the crowd bathes him in applause. Cheers ring out when he rolls in his 4-foot par putt. O’Brien raises Gutierrez’s paralyzed left arm and points his own right index finger toward the sky. Hands high for the glory of God.
VETERANS DAY 2014. My personal golf marathon with Gutierrez and O’Brien is coming to a close. We have decided, after 15 holes of Gutierrez kicking my butt, to start a fresh match on the 16th hole. We play that one to a draw. Gutierrez congratulates me on walking 18 holes. I tell him he is my inspiration.
Gutierrez and the author at the 'well.' (Rich O'Brien)
We repair to a circular planter behind the clubhouse. The planter looks like a well, and the manuscript of a yet-unpublished book that O’Brien, Gutierrez and local author Linda Falter have written opens with a folk tale about a donkey falling into an abandoned well. In the tale, the farmer sees there is no chance of rescuing the animal, so he begins to shovel dirt into the well to bury the beast. The donkey shakes each shovelful off his back. The pile of dirt accumulates. Eventually it reaches the top of the well and the donkey steps out. The moral? Even when a situation appears hopeless, there can still be a way out. O’Brien puts it this way: “What happens to you isn’t nearly as important as how you react to it.”
The manuscript also includes a picture of a smiling Gutierrez standing in front of the planter, lifting his paralyzed left leg.
For our picture, we decide sitting is just fine.
POSTSCRIPT. Gutierrez has another challenge in front of him, but this time he’s the favorite, not the underdog. The One Armed Challenge will take place on Dec. 8 at Miler Country Club. Gutierrez will take on three local professionals, including Miler head pro Bray Blanton, with proceeds benefitting the military charity Folds of Honor. The catch? The pros have to play one-handed, too. Blanton admires Gutierrez’s swing so much, he has his new pupils watch Fred. But swinging one-handed himself? He doesn’t sound too confident. He needn’t worry, though. All he has to do is listen for the phrase that still echoes around his own club:
“If Fred can do it.”